PINE RIDGE, SD — In a growing number of US states, people can both legally drink alcohol and smoke marijuana recreationally. In others, they can use alcohol but not pot. But on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, the opposite is true: marijuana is legal, but alcohol is prohibited.
Citizens of the Oglala Sioux Tribe voted overwhelmingly in 2020 to legalize recreational and medical marijuana on their vast reservation, which has banned the sale and consumption of alcohol for more than 100 years.
Customers visiting a dispensary on a recent Friday said they saw marijuana as a safe and natural way to get relief from mental health conditions and chronic illnesses, which are common among tribal citizens. But they said the alcohol had taken a toll on the tribesmen’s health, safety and life expectancy.
“Cannabis is a natural plant that comes from the Earth – and our people lived off the land, and they got their medicine from the land,” Ann Marie Beane said while shopping at the No Worries dispensary in the small town of Pine. Ridge. “Our indigenous people suffer a lot from diabetes, cancer and various other diseases, but cannabis really helps them.”
Beane and her 22-year-old daughter said they use marijuana to relieve their anxiety.
Marijuana use can lead to physical and mental health problems, but shoppers at the No Worries store said it was less dangerous than alcohol, methamphetamine and opioids. These drugs cause high rates of premature death on the reservation due to car accidents, violence and disease.
The Pine Ridge Reservation, established in 1889, spans more than 2 million acres of otherworldly small towns, ranches, grasslands and badland formations. The US Census Bureau says about 20,000 people live there, but community members say that’s a vast undercount and the population could be as high as 40,000.
Alcohol has been illegal there for most of the reservation’s history, but that hasn’t stopped smuggling and abuse. “He’s killing our youth – he’s killing our future generation,” Beane said.
The Oglala Sioux Tribe said in a 2012 lawsuit that about 25% of children born on the reservation had health or behavioral problems caused by exposure to alcohol in the womb. The lawsuit was filed against now-closed beer stores across the border in Nebraska.
The average life expectancy is just 64.5 years in Oglala Lakota County, which includes much of the Pine Ridge Reservation, according to a 2019 estimate from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation of the University of Washington. This is the lowest of any county in the United States and about 15 years below the national average.
Native Americans have high rates of health problems, which experts attribute to poverty and how their communities have been harmed and fractured by federal policies. Those living on reservations often have limited access to health services and healthy food, and their primary health care provider is the Indian Health Service, which has been dogged by complaints of underfunding and care of inferior quality.
Last Friday, Beane was among dozens of customers who parked in the gravel parking lot at the No Worries dispensary. After displaying identification through a counter, customers entered the store to purchase bulk marijuana, joints and edibles prepared in a commercial-grade kitchen.
Only a few No Worries customers reported using marijuana for purely recreational purposes. More said they used it to relieve anxiety, pain, and other medical conditions.
A client’s eyes filled with tears as she lifted her shirt to reveal an ostomy bag, which doctors tied to her abdomen after removing part of her intestines.
Another client, Chantilly Little, said she was recovering from an addiction to stronger drugs. The 27-year-old said she had seen drugs kill tribal citizens and wanted to be a responsible parent. “I’d rather smoke than take other drugs because I almost gave up on my kids,” Little said.
Stephanie Bolman – a breast cancer patient, former healthcare worker and Lower Brule Sioux Tribal council member – was traveling in the area and decided to visit the No Worries boutique.
Bolman does not use marijuana but wanted to see the dispensary. She wants to legalize medical cannabis on her reservation, located along the Missouri River in central South Dakota, about four hours east of Pine Ridge.
“Unfortunately, the health care services provided by the Indian Health Service have failed in many ways,” Bolman said. “It left a lot of people to fend for themselves and endure so much pain and suffering that medical marijuana proved lifesaving.”
In 2020, when tribal citizens approved marijuana initiatives for the Pine Ridge Reservation, they rejected a proposal to legalize alcohol sales and consumption at the reservation’s two casinos.
In 2013, voters approved a referendum to legalize all liquor reserves by a narrow margin. But the tribal council never implemented the change.
The Lakota did not use marijuana in pre-colonial times, said Craig Howe, a Lakota historian. The Lakota and other Great Plains tribes also did not use alcohol until it was introduced by white traders in the 1800s.
Alcohol “was meant to control our people, and it eventually became a weapon of mass destruction,” said drug treatment counselor and Oglala Sioux Tribe member Ruth Cedar Face.
Cedar Face said medical marijuana can be helpful for certain medical and mental health conditions, but it’s not a panacea. “When it becomes a problem, when it becomes an addiction, it’s because they’re healing the things they need to deal with, like the trauma that’s usually at the heart of any kind of addiction or unhealthy behavior,” she said.
Cedar Face said marijuana can also cause psychosis, lung damage, decreased brain development and other problems in some users, especially teenagers and young adults.
People must be 21 or older to buy or consume cannabis, according to Oglala Sioux law. They can face jail time for supplying marijuana to minors and fines for using drugs while driving.
Dispensaries can only sell marijuana grown on the reservation, and customers are prohibited from transporting cannabis elsewhere. But about 40% of No Worries customers live off the reservation, with many hailing from South Dakota’s Black Hills or northwestern Nebraska, owner Adonis Saltes said.
Recreational marijuana is illegal in South Dakota, which means law enforcement officers could charge anyone caught transporting or using cannabis outside of reservation boundaries. But the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office, which borders the Pine Ridge Reservation, said it has not arrested anyone on such charges.
This contrasts with the experience of the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe on the east side of the state. According to Seth Pearman, the tribe’s attorney general, state and local law enforcement officers are charging Native Americans and non-Natives who left the reservation with cannabis from the reservation’s medical dispensary. .
KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism on health issues. Along with policy analysis and polling, KHN is one of the three main operating programs of KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed non-profit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.
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